These days, when a company goes through a re-brand they tend to present things in the friendliest terms possible—think voice over actors that sound like Zach Braff, little xylophone ditties, and language that manages to sound left-of-centre while being completely innocuous. This is what came to mind when I first entered the Relaunch opening at Kunst-Werke, where the walls of various rooms have been annotated in felt-tip pen by the artist Nedko Solakov, with comments such as “furniture, comfortable (maybe)” and “Ellen wants a terrace on the roof. Not yet possible. Still fundraising.” The twenty handwritten wall texts (TEASERS #1-20) speak candidly about future exhibitions, projects and structural changes—some already set-in-motion, others still contingent. Many are direct quotes from KW’s new Chief Curator Ellen Blumenstein (referred to simply as “Ellen”). The institution thus mediates itself through the observations of an enthusiastic artist; presumably because the institutionally unattached artist is more palatable to us, their viewpoint more playful and potentially critical, and their stray scrawl can assume an art-status that a curator’s press release cannot. Solakov makes the institution friendly even as he gently jibes at it–his teasing (of both the audience and institution) is ultimately affectionate, as most teasing is.
The TEASERS campaign and the institutional changes it hints at (Studiolos for study and reflection, a floor dedicated to events and public programs, new collaborations and partnerships), suggest that KW is on it’s way to becoming a fully fledged “new institution.” The term “new institutionalism,” which gained currency in the middle of last-decade, describes institutions that eschew traditional exhibition-centric programs, focusing instead on discursivity, participation and self-reflexivity. Alex Farquharson even wrote that new institutionalism “represents the absorption of institutional critique” (Frieze, September 2006). By positioning the Relaunch as a sort of institutional self-critique / self-exploration, Blumenstein signifies KW’s continued commitment to being a certain type of institution: one that is flexible, fluid and self-aware. Blumenstein even offers herself up as proof of this commitment. Using the avatar Ellen Bluumenstein (who has 1700 online followers to date) the curator has a persona that is publicly accessible at all times. Bluumenstein makes herself similarly available to artists, becoming the subject of performances by Ulf Aminde and Sabine Reinfeld in INSISTERE #7 DON”T FUCK WITH MY NAME (Hacking the Curator).
Despite displaying new-institutional tendencies towards openness and engagement, one thing I enjoyed about Relaunch was in its refusal to democratize. While indulging the publics thirst for “insider-knowledge” the exhibition actually emphasized it’s own institutional separateness—acting like a window on the side of a building site, sating our curiosity in the hope that we won’t jump the fence. One teaser designated a small space where the public was allowed to mark the walls: “If you feel the URGENT need to express yourself, please do it on this wall and not among my doodles in the building (and the toilets).” A none-too-subtle reminder that the public are not the artists and that this was not an interactive free-for-all. In the context of the non-exhibition format of the relaunch the public became an even more noticeable entity—a ceaselessly moving mass that consumed the largely empty space as easily as it would consume a more tangible and present exhibition. The Relaunch will continue to evolve over the next four months, exploring the potential of KW, testing ideas for it’s future. Given the new institutional tendency to flirt with ideas, to keep them open-ended, it is actually refreshing to see the idea of flirting/teasing/testing become the conceptual lynchpin of a project rather than just a by-product. The initial tease was unsatisfying but it also left us wanting more.